During our recent webcam chat (watch above), “Grease: Live” choreographer Zach Woodlee readily admitted, “Taking something that everyone’s so familiar with and trying to make it your own is very nerve-racking.” First performed on Broadway in 1972, “Grease” was adapted into a beloved 1978 film. Yet Woodlee says he felt up to the challenge. “I think for audience members, it’s nice to see a fresher version of something that they all know so well.”
For this live television production, he explains, “we started with six dancers for a week and tried to work out as much material on their bodies as we possibly could.” This included, “a lot of just testing material, seeing what felt right in the body, what works before we actually got the full cast, because that was really crunch time. At that point, it’s just throwing so much material at them, and then a lot of late nights reworking and rethinking.”
He reveals that the famous “Born to Hand Jive” sequence, set inside the high school gymnasium, was particularly daunting. “It was probably the most difficult number I’ve ever done in my life,” he says, “because if anyone was six-inches off, they’d either run into each other or run into camera or run into a bleacher. Everything was mapped out.”
Yet problems weren’t restricted to the rehearsals alone: on the day of the show, a monster rain storm threatened the many outdoor sequences that had been planned, sending the cast and crew into a red alert. “It was a ‘we have to make this work’ moment,” Woodlee explains. The opening number and several others had to quickly be restaged in the event the weather got out of hand. “We did an alternate version with some umbrellas just to make sure that for the next scene we didn’t have a lot of wet people in it. With life, I’ve come to understand that if it can happen, it will.” Luckily, it didn’t.
Woodlee, who got his start as a dancer for Madonna before moving into choreography, has credits including “Glee,” “Hairspray” (2007), and “The 40-Year-Old Virgin” (2005) on his resume. However, he admits “Grease: Live” is a tough act to follow. “It’s the most collaborative experience I’ve ever had in my life,” he reveals. “Trying to morph the film version and the stage version into a musical we’re representing on television had a lot of challenges, but at the same time, the team really knew how to piggy-back on each other’s work. We were never at a standstill with, ‘Oh, what do we do next?’ It was a race towards the finish to just make sure that everything was as good as we could possibly get it.”